This is G-d’s Country
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Vayechi, contains the final chapter in the life of Yaakov Avinu, last of the patriarchs. According to his own words as conveyed to Pharaoh he had experienced a short and difficult life. He had encountered great conflict with his brother, Eisav, his uncle Lavan, the Prince of Shechem who raped his daughter and, worst of all, the sibling rivalry that led to his lengthy separation from Yosef. Despite the many hardships and travails everything ended well. When all is said and done, Hashem rules the world, “atzat Hashem hee takum” it’s the plan of God tht that endures. Hashem arranged things for Yosef to be in a position of dominance over his brothers. Yosef used it with great wisdom to create situations in which all of the parties would be forced to confront their sins and do Teshuva. Finally when the spiritual goals were met Yosef identified himself and in the most exalted gesture of forgiveness reunited the family and put them in a secure and comfortable position in Egypt.
It would seem that the last seventeen years of Yaakov’s life were spent in tranquility surrounded by his family and his beloved Yosef, secure in the knowledge that the goal of establishing the “tribes of Hashem” had been achieved.
When he felt his death to be approaching he summoned Yosef and committed him by oath to a sacred mission, burying him in the Cave of Machpelah. The Torah devotes a great deal of space to the burial of Yaakov. Indeed, seemingly taking a cue from his father, Yosef, later on solicited an oath from his brothers to have him buried in the Holy Land. The brothers, of course, were in no position to grant that request as Pharaoh would not allow Yosef’s body to be removed from Egypt. Yosef meant that they should pass on the oath to the next generation and they to the following generation until the time for the Exodus would arrive. In describing the departure of the Jews from Egypt the parsha states, “And Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him for he had foresworn the children of Israel, saying when Hashem will extricate you from here bring up my bones with you”. According to the Rabbis all of the brothers imposed that oath on their children and were eventually interred in the land of Israel.
The question arises, what is so important about where one is buried? According to Judaism a person is judged upon death and if he merits it receives his reward in Olam Habah (World To Come). The manner in which he lives his life is the most crucial factor. It would not seem to matter where his corpse is “laid to rest.” Yet we see from our parsha that, to the contrary, it is of great importance. Why should this be so?
Yaakov’s request contained three elements that he not be buried in Egypt, that he be buried in the land of Canaan and specifically in the grave of his forebears. Egypt was a society which was steeped in primitive idolatry and sexual immorality. It represented a false philosophy of life and a corrupt culture. Yaakov was forced by circumstances to sojourn there. He wanted all future generations to know that he did not voluntarily choose to live in an immoral country. Thus we learn how important it is to choose with great care the society we decide to become a part of. He wanted to be buried in the Machpelah with the other patriarchs to establish for all future generations a testimony that the land of Israel was associated with the “G-dly” way of life as exemplified by Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and the Matriarchs. According to Rambam if one chooses to be buried in Israel his sins are forgiven. It goes without saying that residing there while alive is of infinitely greater merit. It is better, he says, to live in Israel, in a place where the majority are idol worshippers, than outside the land in a place where the majority serves Hashem. At first glance, this proposition is difficult to comprehend. What is so important about the land of Israel that overrides such weighty considerations? The answer is that coming to Israel is an affirmation of G-d’s relationship to man as evidenced in the lives of our forefathers and the nation of Israel they gave rise to. He who lives in Israel puts his faith in the protection of Hashem and chooses a dwelling in which he is always “bifnei Hashem” (in the presence of G-d). One who cannot manage to live there but chooses to be buried there also acknowledges the special relationship that exists between G-d, the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael. May we merit to experience the wonderful blessings of Israel in our lifetime.